Army prosecutions for desertion and other unauthorized absences have risen sharply in the past four years, resulting in thousands more negative discharges and prison time for both junior soldiers and combat-tested veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Army records show.
The increased prosecutions are meant to serve as a deterrent to a growing number of soldiers who are ambivalent about heading -- or heading back -- to Iraq and might be looking for a way out, Army lawyers said. Using courts-martial for these violations, which before 2002 were treated mostly as unpunished nuisances, is a sign that active-duty forces are being stretched to their limits, said military lawyers and mental health experts.
"They are scraping to get people to go back, and people are worn out," said Dr. Thomas Grieger, a Navy psychiatrist. Though there are no current studies to show how combat stress affects desertion rates, Grieger noted examples of soldiers absconding or refusing to return to Iraq because of psychiatric reasons brought on by wartime deployments.
From 2002 through 2006, the average annual rate of Army prosecutions of desertion was triple that from 1997 to 2001, rising to about 6 percent of deserters, Army data show.
Between the two five-year spans -- one prewar and one during wartime -- prosecutions for similar crimes, such as absence without leave or failing to appear for unit missions, have more than doubled, to an average of 390 per year from about 180 per year, Army data show.
Since 2002, the Army has court-martialed twice as many soldiers for desertion and other unauthorized absences on average as it did each year between 1997 and 2001.
Officers said the crackdown reflected an awareness by top Army and Defense Department officials that desertions, which occurred among more than 1 percent of the active-duty force in 2000 for the first time since the post-Vietnam era, were in a sustained upswing again after ebbing in 2003, the first year of the Iraq war.
At the same time, the increase highlights a cycle long known to Army researchers: As the demand for soldiers increases during a war, desertions rise and the Army tends to lower enlistment standards, recruiting more people with questionable backgrounds who are far more likely to become deserters.